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A mythic businessman's achievement, 25 years ago

Jonathan P Hicks | 12/6/2012, 3:20 p.m.
It was 25 years ago when Reginald F. Lewis splashed onto the international financial scene,...
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It was 25 years ago when Reginald F. Lewis splashed onto the international financial scene, grabbing the attention of the world by purchasing the international operations of the Beatrice Companies for roughly $1 billon. It was an achievement of immense proportion for anyone in the rollicking era of corporate takeovers of the 1980s. For an African-American businessman, it was an achievement of near-mythic proportions.

Yet, a quarter century after that landmark purchase, Reginald Lewis is nowhere near as well-known as should be the case. For a new generation of Americans, he is barely celebrated despite the fact that he was one of the seminal business figures in Black America in the 20th century.

We tend to remember the business tycoons who sell products we have great familiarity with. In African-American history, those have been the pioneers who sold hair-care products, newspapers and magazines, and insurance: the Madame C.J. Walkers, the John Johnsons and the Robert L. Johnsons.

But that is precisely what makes the achievements of Lewis so undeniably outstanding. Perhaps it is because Lewis, who died in 1993, dealt in the world of stocks and bonds, in the highly specialized arenas of leveraged buyouts, rather than television shows, magazines or well-known American consumer products, that he has not received the renown he is due.

Nonetheless, he was a powerhouse in the world of business and finance. He was the richest African-American businessman of the 1980s and early 1990s. And his TLC Beatrice International Holdings became the first Black-owned company to have more than $1 billion in annual sales and was number 512 on Forbes magazine's listing of the 1,000 largest companies.

Lewis was a son of working-class Baltimore. He went to Virginia State University and, later, to Harvard Law School. He cobbled together enough money to purchase the McCall Pattern Company, which he sold for a ratio of 90-to-1 on his initial investment.

In 1987, Lewis bought Beatrice International Foods for $985 million, renaming it TLC Beatrice International, a snack food, beverage and grocery store conglomerate that was the largest business in the country owned and managed by an African-American.

It was heartening to see Lewis' achievements honored recently at a gala dinner at the Harvard Club, an event hosted by his widow, Loida Nicholas Lewis, and attended by some of leading figures of the Lewis era, from former New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins to Michael Milken, the well-known corporate financier of the 1980s.

The hope is that Lewis' story and history will inspire and spur other young Black men and women to achieve great things in the world of business and finance. At the same time, it would be an incredible development in American life if more African-American youth were viewed by others as potential Reginald Lewises.

In a nation where young Black men are increasingly under assault, either by stop-and-frisk police practices or outright shooting by vigilante assailants, the story of Reginald Lewis should remind Americans again that Black youth should be viewed as promising citizens who possess the talent to achieve awe-inspiring heights. There are surely more like him out there.